The Sequel

July 23, 2002 10:07 AM
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It’s back to Pocono for the second time this year for Race 20 of 36 on the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup schedule.

The unique configuration of the 2.5-mile track makes it one of the more enjoyable races to view as a fan. The track is known as the super speedway that drives like a road course.

Pocono has three straights, all with differing lengths, and three turns, all with varying angles and degree of banking. Turn three has traditionally been the most exciting because that’s where many of the passes are made. It’s a flat turn that requires a perfect blend of down shifting and braking. Entering and exiting at maximum speed is essential to being successful.

The course then heads into a 3/4-mile drag strip where speeds top 200 mph, an area where some of the top teams get to really flex their horsepower. The configuration is fun for the fans to watch, but can be frustrating for the teams because there really is no other track other than Indianapolis that they can share set-up notes.

The list of Pocono winners is a who’s who of NASCAR veterans with the exception of Jeremy Mayfield (22-1), who has won twice in three ­­appearances.

In the last 23 races at Pocono dating back to 1991, only four drivers have won who weren’t Winston Cup champions. That list includes Mayfield (1998, 2000), Kyle Petty (1993, 65-1 this year), Geoff Bodine (1994) and Ricky Rudd (10-1) last year.

The least productive major team at Pocono is Roush Racing. Mark Martin (12-1) has been the star driver, but has failed to win in 31 starts. In all, no wins for Roush despite all the great young drivers under him. Also, a Roush powered car has never captured a Winston Cup championship.

One of the most dominant teams at Pocono has been headed by Rick Hendrick. His cars have won more consistently with different drivers than any other owner. Hendrick has won with Jeff Gordon (6-1) three times, Terry Labonte (85-1), Darrell Waltrip, and Bodine.

Roger Penske has six combined wins between Mayfield and Rusty Wallace (10-1). Wallace’s four wins at Pocono rank second all-time. Penske knows horsepower as evidenced by sweeping the 2000 season and owning nine CART championships and 12 Indy 500 wins. However, he doesn’t have a Winston Cup title as an owner. Penske won his championship in 1989, two years prior to getting involved as full-time owner.

Robert Yates has had the most impressive success in the last seven seasons at Pocono particularly because of Dale Jarrett (6-1). In 13 of Jarrett’s last 15 starts there, he has finished in the Top 5. That includes three wins.

Jarrett enjoyed a stretch that ended last season where he went 10 straight races with a Top 5 finish. That kind of dominance of a single track over that length of time by any driver in any type of racing series just doesn’t happen. Jarrett is a terrific driver, but when teammate Rudd won last year and led the most laps there last month, it showed that the Yates engine program might be the best.

Tony Stewart (7-1) has finished in the Top 7 in six of seven ­­career starts at Pocono. His best finish being third last year.

Bobby Labonte (12-1) is a three-time winner at Pocono, sweeping in 1999 and taking the title last year. The demise of Bobby without losing any real key figures in the organization may well be proof that Pontiac is definitely at a disadvantage.

Things may be turning around for Labonte however. Last week at New Hampshire, Labonte was among the leaders in practice sessions for the first time all season. Good value with Labonte may be had in a matchup with a lesser quality driver because of Labonte’s lack of success this season.

Bill Elliott is the track’s all-time leader in wins (five), but none since 1989. During Elliott’s stint driving for Harry Melling, there was no car faster with more horsepower further lending historical evidence that a jalopy cannot win at Pocono like they can at several other tracks.

The tandem of Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt only captured one win together. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10-1) did have a quality second place finish in this race last year.

This season, the cars that have demonstrated the blazing speed required are driven by the young guns. Jimmie Johnson (10-1) finished third in last month’s race, while Kurt Busch (10-1) and Ryan Newman (18-1) experienced how tough the track is by finishing 40th and 32nd respectively.

It would be an extreme accomplishment for one of these drivers to win at Pocono and Johnson might have the better pedigree to do so. History shows that veterans like Jarrett, Rudd, Wallace and Gordon are the safer choice.

POCONO TOP 5

1) #88 Dale Jarrett 6-1

2) #28 Ricky Rudd 10-1

3) #24 Jeff Gordon 6-1

4) #48 Jimmie Johnson 10-1

5) #2 Rusty Wallace 10-1